Memories of dubbin & blisters

January 13, 2013

After too long an absence I am back in the Maritimes to meet with senior Government officials and run an advanced training course.  Michael is over as well so today was all strategy conversations as well as a lot of operational issues.  Working all over the world you seize what opportunities you can to get together.  We had two breaks, one of which was to head for the Mountain Equipment Co-op of which I have been a member for the best part of decade.  It’s one of those shops where you find things that you would love to buy if only you could think of something you might use them; chandlers and stationery shops have a similar effect I’m afraid along with book shops.

Today’s trip has a clear purpose, namely to buy some new heavy duty walking boots.   The light fabric books have been suffering from mud of recent days and by old winter boots were foolishly left uncleaned in the car boot near Heathrow for a week during a cold snap.  Water got into a crack in the sole and it froze with inevitable consequences.  I came back to find that the sole largely separated from the boot uppers.  Now buying winter boots is a serious business as it doesn’t happen that often, every ten years or so with average use or twenty in this case my having neglected walking for too long.  Those time gaps mean you get to really appreciate the changes in technology.  I had already done a fair amount of research online and the Zamberlan Vioz GT was on my short list.  It was featured as a members choice on MEC’s web site so I tried them first.  It was a revelation as they fitting like a glove and my feet just wanted to walk.  They have a natural roll to them and after walking around the store and up and down the ramp there was no question in my mind.  For the first time in my life I bought the first pair I tried on.

They are an object of beauty, in the way of any well designed object and they will probably be baptised (literally) in snow and water this weekend on the Wye Valley Walk which is the next target for myself, Peter and Julia.  I can’t imagine any issues or problems which contrasts with how it used to be.   I remember at the age of ten seeking out my first real walking boots with my mother on one of the frequent visits to Cardiff.  We were brought up in North Wales, but returned to ‘home’ several times a year.  In those days the plethora of outdoor shops that we see on the high street of today was but a distant dream.  I had climbed Snowdon in rubber wellington boots and a duffle coat a year or so before that but I was now going on a one week walking holiday through mid Wales as part of a YHA organised holiday.  That meant new boots and a revolutionary new rucksack with a metal frame.

That shopping trip is still one of my strongest memories.  We walked past Cardiff Museum (which was already becoming a regular haunt) into Park Place and the YHA shop which was a small room in the back of an old building which also housed their regional offices.  I was sat down and two pairs of socks were donned while a series of stiff leather boots were tried on. There was little choice but I can still see the final selection in my mind’s eye.  We got the bus back to Pencisely Avenue and then the saga of breaking in began.

Older readers may remember this; it took some time and effort to break boots in, and to prepare your feet.  I had two months and it was just about enough.   We started with short walks and carried plasters for the blisters.  Not the modern ones, but old fabric ones along with some antiseptic cream.  Every night the boots had dubbin rubbed into them and the leather was flexed throughout.  Gradually the leather shaped itself to your foot but by the time this was complete whole layers of skin and been removed and even a short walk down the Leete path at Loggerheads produced an exaggerated sense of martyrdom.

Then in preparation for the trip itself, which started the day of the World Cup final in London, I went through a ritual of soaking my feet every night in a bowl of dissolved Potassium permanganate crystals until my feet were almost permanently stained purple.  Once dried one rubbed surgical spirit into them so on top of the colour they now smelt of a doctor’s surgery.  It was elaborate, it was at times painful and embarrassing but by the time I arrived at Llangollen station to meet the rest of the party at least my feet would survive the trip.   I did however discover that I was at the bottom of the accepted age range, while the other nine boys were at the top.  A three year age gap represents a lot at that age in terms of walking speed and aggression, but we were well led and I have mainly happy memories as we passed through Bala and Dolgellau by mountain routes to our finishing point at Harlech.

Over the next decade, while my feet were growing, I went through that process another three times, but the boots I broke in at 18 lasted me for twenty years.  I had the soles replaced twice which was less economic than buying new, but much better than going through the agony.  After that the technology had advanced and you could wear for long walks immediately on purchase.  But nothing compares with the level of comfort in this latest set.  Some of the ritual of breaking in is lost of course but I think I am happy to avoid the purple feet.

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